Plucking the strings of genius

A national composer with an international stature, the 'blind harper' Turlough O'Carolan will be honoured at next week's Fleadh…

A national composer with an international stature, the 'blind harper' Turlough O'Carolan will be honoured at next week's Fleadh, writes Eileen Battersby

He was born in Nobber, Co Meath, in 1670 - 15 years before Bach - and he died in 1738, 18 years before the birth of Mozart. Blinded by smallpox at the age of 14, he looked to his art and travelled the island of Ireland on horseback, his harp slung over his shoulder. His name was Turlough O'Carolan, and he was a harper and composer, whose musical legacy consists of at least 214 pieces of music, several of which are classics in the repertoire.

The newly formed National Harp Orchestra, under Dr Janet Harbison, will perform the music of O'Carolan in a recital at Mohill, Co Leitrim, as part of the forthcoming Fleadh Cheoil which begins on Friday, April 28th. O'Carolan settled in Mohill, building a house after he married at the age of 50. It was also the birthplace of his seven children and where his wife, Mary Maguire from Tempo, Co Fermanagh, died after only 13 years of marriage. O'Carolan survived her by five years, dying at 68.

Little is known of the subsequent lives of his children, although he taught at least one of his sons to play the harp and this man in turn taught harping in the Mohill area before moving to England where the track runs cold. An O'Carolan daughter married a Capt Sudley and for her dowry, O'Carolan composed the tune Captain Sudley.


In 1985, the local community erected a statue, designed by Oisin Kelly but completed by his assistant, in O'Carolan's honour and the platform of the monument will serve as the stage for the concert on Sunday, April 30th. If the story of O'Carolan, the blind harpist, dragging his harp to the homes of rich patrons, largely gentry folk, sounds romantic, the reality is different. His worst enemy was the weather.

This was a sophisticated artist, if not formally trained at an academy, who composed music influenced by the Italian style, and best described as "Irish Baroque", which he played on a complex instrument. The initial survival of his work is due to the dedicated efforts of a young Belfast musician and musicologist, Edward Bunting (1773-1843), who gathered the pieces and notated them, including them in his three collections of Irish music. O'Carolan would have a later champion in the form of the great Seán O'Riada who revived and popularised O'Carolan's music in the late 1960s when it had almost been forgotten.

O'Carolan's life story reflects the social and political upheaval of 18th century Ireland. Having had a settled childhood on the family farm in Nobber until the age of 14 when Cromwell arrived. The O'Carolan family was faced with the infamous choice - "to hell or to Connacht".

Turlough's father, John O'Carolan, chose Connacht and headed west to Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim, where Olivia St George, a member of the Beresford family who were the O'Carolan's neighbours in Co Meath, ensured John O'Carolan was given work as a farmhand and blacksmith for the St George family.

This new security was short-lived. Olivia died and the O'Carolan family left Carrick and moved some 15 miles farther west, to Ballyfarnon, Co Roscommon and Alderford House, the home of the MacDermott Roes, friends of the St George family and the owners of the local iron foundry.

Though by then marked by fate, having been blinded by smallpox, the young Turlough had already found favour with the lady of the house. He was educated along with her own children by a tutor and part of the schooling was music. His natural talent was obvious. Mary MacDermott Roe gave him a harp, the guitar of the day, and he began to thrive under the tuition of Denis O'Connor whose wife was an O'Rourke. Her family would in time become patrons of O'Carolan. He never forgot his debt to Mrs Mac Dermott Roe and composed 10 songs for the family.

Many years before this, though, she had apprenticed him as a teenager to a good local harper. When Turlough O'Carolan reached the age of 21, she gave him a horse, a manservant or giolla, and money as he set out on the career of an itinerant harpist.

Singing for his supper was not as desperate as it may sound. Harpists were well respected, and even feared as satirists, and were regarded as the political commentators of the day. O'Carolan was welcomed into the homes of the gentry Irish and of the Anglo-Irish and he repaid their hospitality with his music, often dedicating tunes and songs to his hosts. His travels took him through Connacht and Ulster and he appears to have had the knack of friendship.

He made lasting friendships with many of his patrons. His wife was related by marriage to his earliest champions, the Mac Dermott Roes. His friendship with Dean Jonathan Swift was special as the dean, only three years older than O'Carolan, resided mainly in Dublin. Music was their shared interest. O'Carolan spoke Irish and had only basic English - which must have made his conversations with Swift interesting to overhear.

There is a story that O'Carolan once met up with a group of Italian musicians based in Dublin at a party in Swift's home. The harper challenged one of them, the violinist and music teacher Francesco Geminiani, to a test of musical skill. The Italian accepted the challenge and played from Vivaldi's Fifth Violin Concerto, making deliberate mistakes. O'Carolan listened before remarking in Irish: "It limps and stumbles." He then played the same violin piece on his harp, correcting the errors. He followed this with the first performance of what has become his famous concerto. Both are commemorated in stone on the walls of St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin.

The Irish harp has been politicised as a symbol and popularised in such a folksy way as to alienate the people of Ireland from the instrument's heritage. It straddles an awkward place between folk and classical; the drawing room, the concert hall and, in Ireland, the folk cabaret. The emphasis on its function as exclusively tourist entertainment maligns what is a serious musical history. The harp is an ancient instrument dating from Biblical times, which not only dominates the folk music of the world but retains its place in the concert orchestra - one of Mozart's most beautiful works is his Concerto for Flute, Harp and Orchestra in C major, K299 - and the harp with its delicate sound features in the orchestral music of several major composers.

As a composer and as a player, O'Carolan was about 100 years ahead of his time. He possessed sweetness of tone and a genius for finding the right note - comparisons with Mozart are not as extreme as they may appear. From an Irish point of view, he is a national composer with an international stature. For more than 40 years he played his tunes, winning admirers and respect. During a visit to his wife's family in Tempo, O'Carolan, by then aged and ailing, became ill.

But he refused to stay and set off for Alderford. Mary MacDermott Roe, by then in her 90s, tended him in his final illness. He seemed to recover and even asked for his harp, composing SláLeis an Cheol. It was an apt title and proved his farewell. He died in 1738, aged 68, and his four-day wake is part of the folk memory. The harpers of Ireland congregated to pay tribute, as did some 60 priests despite the dangers in Penal Code Ireland.

O'Carolan is believed to be buried in the Mac Dermott Mausoleum in Kilronan Cemetery between Ballyfarnon and Keadue, Co Roscommon.